The crazy life story of James Finlayson
James Finlayson played the part of a street cleaner in this Rosco Ates RKO comedy two-reeler, which was directed by Lloyd French and released on 12 Sep 1931.1
The film’s title gave me the idea of clearing up some of the rubbish that has been written about James Finlayson over the years. After thorough research, I can tell you that every biographical article I’ve read contains untrue statements that are, well, garbage. It’s been very disappointing that few writers seem to bother with source citations and this has led to unfounded speculation on aspects such as his family background, education and the beginnings of his acting career. Typically, the absence of research results in lazy pigeon-holing that he must have followed the journey of other British comedians (e.g. Chaplin, Laurel) by playing in music halls before coming over to America in a performing troupe. Much has been copied unchallenged from his 1953 obituaries (no doubt thrown together quickly) and in turn copied from other biographies and embellished to fill in the blanks. The biography I am writing is, however, built from the bottom-up by examining contemporary primary sources such as genealogical records (e.g. census returns, passenger lists, etc.) and newspaper archives. I won’t be copying and pasting anyone else’s work.
So, let’s look at a few of the more common claims made about James’ life and career and play a game of Truth or Trash, or more appropriately Yes or D’oh!
D’oh! To the shame of the British Film Institute, their filmography of James has his place of birth as Falkirk.2 Other biographies say “Larbert, Falkirk”. A 1997 article in The Stage even claimed that James was from my hometown of Grangemouth.3 While his maternal grandparents (my great-great-grandparents) James and Isabella HENDERSON did eventually move to Grangemouth, and he had a number of aunts and uncles there (including my great-grandparents), he most certainly wasn’t born there. James was in fact born in the village of Larbert in the parish of Larbert in the county of Stirling (or Stirlingshire).4 Larbert only became part of Falkirk District Council in the 1975 local government reorganisation in Scotland, so “Larbert, Falkirk” is not correct. “Larbert, near Falkirk” would be acceptable given their geographical proximity.
D’oh! James’ obituary in the LA Times claimed that “in 1912 he came to America as a juvenile player in a Scottish comedy that played Broadway for 13 months – ‘Bunty Pulls the Strings'”. However, James was not a cast member of the London production of Graham Moffat’s comedy at the Haymarket Theatre in August 1911,5,6 nor was he an original cast member of the Broadway production in October 1911.7,8 James’ part of Rab Biggar was played by George Tawde in London,6 and initially by Edmond Beresford in New York.7,8 In fact, James came to America for family reasons, arriving in New York with his younger brother Robert in June 1911.9 He was a 24 year old actor, so hardly “a juvenile player”. James joined the cast of ‘Bunty’ in May 1912,10,11 as well as appearing in a couple of other New York theatre offerings.12
Lewis Waller will present “The Great Game”, a one-act play by W. Cronin Wilson, as a curtain raiser to “The Explorer” at Daly’s Theatre, beginning on Thursday evening. The piece has never been produced in this country, but was used by Mr. Waller as a curtain raiser to several of his London productions, and it has also been given in the English music halls. The three characters will be played at Daly’s by Frank Woolfe and Lewis Broughton of “The Explorer” company and James Finlayson, who is appearing in the second act of “Bunty Pulls the Strings”.‘Waller to Give a One-Act Play’, The New York Times, 14 May 1912, p. 11.
D’oh! The origin of this particular nonsense nugget appears to be a letter written by Stan Laurel in 1964 to researcher Hank Jones,13 who subsequently wrote an article for the first ‘Pratfall’ magazine of the Way Out West tent.14 Stan was in the last year of his life, and perhaps his memory was not as good as it had been. In any event, he has confused James with his fellow Scotsman and good friend Andy Clyde, who did tour in the Graham Moffat sketch ‘The Concealed Bed’ along with Helen MacDonald, Janet Gardner, Bessie MacDonald and Stuart Black.15,16,17 The Alec Lauder reference is perhaps to the play ‘The Night Before’ – written by Harry Lauder – that James produced and appeared in alongside Andy Clyde in 1916.18,19
Sansone [sic] and Delila, a pair of sensational gymnasts, started the ball rolling. They were followed by the Earl and Curtis Company, who paved the way nicely for the Grahame [sic] Moffat Players in The Concealed Bed. Here is an act that will never fail to please any kind of an audience. It is written in Mr. Moffat’s best vein and is acted by an exceptionally competent Scottish company. The work of Andrew Clyde as Bob Dewar, and the impersonation of a scandal mongerish, trouble-making character by Miss Bessie McDonald, are particularly worthy of notice in a cast of five people that, for general excellence, has never been beaten, at least in vaudeville.‘Keith’s Union Square’, The Billboard, 2 Nov 1912, p. 10.
Yes! Of course, James wasn’t an original Keystone Cop (as stated in almost every obituary) as he was still in theatre in 1912-17,12 but he played one in both the Masquers’ comedy STOUT HEARTS AND WILLING HANDS (1931),20,21 and Darryl F. Zanuck’s HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (1939).22,23,24 James also made a number of public appearances dressed as a Keystone Cop, including at Mack Sennett’s testimonial dinner held by the Masquers in 1948,25 and at the Shriners parade held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1950 where he, Tiny Ward, Snub Pollard, Chester Conklin, Heinie Conklin and Hank Mann careered around the track in a old Model T, to a rousing ovation from the 90,000 crowd.26